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Boston Marathon

Is it an upset when the defending champ wins the Boston Marathon? On Monday, the answer was yes.

Hellen Obiri, Evans Chebet win elite races
Obiri takes title in just second Marathon; Defending champ Chebet holds off field, Kipchoge. (Courtesy of B.A.A. and ESPN/WCVB)

Is it an upset when the defending champion wins the Boston Marathon? Only when he beats the world’s greatest performer at the distance by more than three minutes, which is what Kenya’s Evans Chebet pulled off on a sodden Monday morning.

The 127th edition of the planet’s most illustrious road race figured to be a showcase for his countryman Eliud Kipchoge, who was making his debut here after lowering his global record by half a minute in Berlin last autumn.

What it became instead was a master class in how to run the world’s most exacting 26-mile layout in the rain by a countryman who’s been here before and aced the course.

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“I’m happy because I know this race, because I won it last year and this year,” said the 34-year-old Chebet, who prevailed by 10 seconds over Tanzania’s Gabriel Geay in 2 hours, 5 minutes and 54 seconds, the third-fastest winning time in race history. “So maybe next year I’ll come back and win it, too.”

It was the first time since Kenya’s Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot won his third straight crown in 2008 that the previous year’s victor had repeated. And it was a humbling experience for Kipchoge, who finished sixth in 2:09:23, by far the slowest time of his career.

“I live for the moments where I get to challenge the limits,” said the two-time Olympic gold medalist who’d won 15 of his previous 17 outings. “It’s never guaranteed, it’s never easy. Today was a tough day for me. "

And it was a tremendously satisfying day for Chebet and his training partner Benson Kipruto, the 2021 victor, who finished third. “We help each other to fight until the end,” said Kipruto, who also was third last year. “We won as a team and we are happy for the results.”

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He and Chebet had vowed on Friday that they would do whatever it took to be up front. If that meant hanging with Kipchoge if he went for a course record they were all-in. But the objective was for one of them to wear the laurel wreath.

“When we woke up this morning we were going for the race,” said Kipruto. “Not for an individual who happened to be in the race.”

Running into a headwind on a wet day wasn’t a recipe for a course record. But Kipchoge still appeared to be positioned for a tactical victory. From the moment that the starting gun was fired in Hopkinton he was the man in front of a group of what became a dozen.

Chebet settled in comfortably as the mile markers went by, never more than a second off the pace. “I wanted to let them go ahead a little because you don’t want to show off that you want to be the winner,” he said. “I fell back so I could observe what they were doing and then I pulled through. It was a strategy, it was planned.”

As the crowds cheer him on, Chebet rounds one of the final corners on the way to the finish line on Boylston Street.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Every so often a challenger would come up alongside Kipchoge and grab the lead for a few strides. But after the pack broke up in Newton Lower Falls and was reduced to seven, it still was Kipchoge leading them around the firehouse turn and into the hills.

He never led by more than a stride or two but a man who made his career by running the second half of races all by himself seemed poised to break free.

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That’s how Kipchoge had done it when he’d set his world records and won his Olympic crowns. This time, though, everyone ran away from Kipchoge to chase Geay, who made a bold move at 19 miles.

By the next marker the favorite was 16 seconds behind and out of the game, dropped well before Heartbreak Hill. “I pushed myself as hard as I could,” the 38-year-old Kipchoge said, “but sometimes we must accept that today wasn’t the day to push the barrier to a greater height.”

By then Chebet and Kipruto were ramping things up. “The pace was a bit slow,” observed Kipruto, “and at some points we were talking to each other, helping to push the pace.”

By the time they reached the Brookline flats heading into the final four miles it was a three-man race among Chebet, Kipruto and Geay, who was fourth here last time. But two of the men were in tandem, sharing water and ambition.

“From a teamwork perspective it was our hope that one of us would win and it doesn’t matter,” said Chebet, who won in New York last fall a month after Kipruto had won in Chicago.

The buddy system worked nicely going through Kenmore Square into the final mile with Chebet and Kipruto side by side and Geay a few yards back. Then the champ went for broke, turned onto Hereford Street alone and strode briskly down Boylston to the tape.

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“As you may have observed, for me the desire was to defend my title,” Chebet said. For the world’s top man, his Boston box remains unchecked.

“In sports you win and you lose,” said Kipchoge, who made a point of congratulating his rivals later. “And there is always tomorrow to set a new challenge.”

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